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Dublin: 2 °C Wednesday 23 January, 2019

Fitzgerald on fire, set-piece problems and more Leinster talking points

Leinster let themselves down in the second half, while Johnny Sexton showed improvement.

LEINSTER LOST FOR the fourth time in four European games this season as they went down 20-16 to Toulon in Dublin.

Read our full match report here.

Two faces of Leinster

If ever there was a game where the two halves were totally contrasting, this was it.

Leinster were excellent before the break, looking far more accurate in attack as their passes went to hand, their ball carriers made an impact on the gainline and the likes of Luke Fitzgerald provided the footwork.

Jamie Heaslip dejected after the match Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Their first-half try came from an excellent maul, while the scrum looked to be gaining parity at the very least. Defensively, there was hunger in the Leinster display, as they generated linespeed, won collisions and competed ferociously on the deck.

That defensive effectiveness did continue into the second half, as Isa Nacewa led the way, but soon they were overtaxed and overrun. Toulon never looked at their best – have they across this double header? – but their ability to pounce on Leinster mistakes was uncanny.

The French side’s scrum became dominant after Leinster changed their front row, while their maul was always biding its time before Anthony Etrillard’s excellent try. The heavy defensive workload began to show as Leinster struggled to generate the energy even to clear their lines.

Brief chances to build pressure on Toulon were missed due to handling errors and a handful of poor decisions. This was certainly an improved outing overall for Leinster, but they will be devastated with their inability to cope with Toulon’s vice grip in the second half.

Set-piece problems

Leinster will have enjoyed mauling their way to that penalty try, but they got a sharp reminder of the French side’s quality in that area in the second half. Aside from Etrillard’s try, there were some big moments at the maul as Leinster gave up penalties for dragging RCT to ground.

At the scrum, Leinster gave up a further try. They conceded a penalty try to the Bath scrum in the defeat at the Rec earlier in this European campaign and there was an identical incident again this evening.

Cian Healy and Marty Moore were sent barrelling backwards by an aggressive Toulon front row near their own posts and referee Wayne Barnes justifiably went straight to the penalty try.

Leinster’s scrum performances have been up and down all season long, and it’s one clear area where they need to target improvement. Defending mauls as effective and powerful as Toulon’s is no easy task, but it’s certainly something Cullen – forwards coach last season – will look to address.

Luke Fitzgerald at 12

Fitzgerald was arguably Leinster’s best player for a second week running, as his ability to beat men one-on-one provided the province with constant possibilities of breaking down the Toulon defence.

Luke Fitzgerald with Ma'a Nonu Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The former Blackrock College man’s relocation to inside centre in recent months has been very interesting, beginning at the World Cup and now extending into his provincial season. He had worn 12 before this season of course, but this seems a concerted effort to allow Fitzgerald to learn the position.

The results so far have been hugely positive. Fitzgerald’s left Ma’a Nonu for dead just before and after the half-time break, the first of the incidents involving a big step off his right foot back inside the Kiwi, while the second saw him accelerate past Nonu on an outside break.

As well as the darts with ball in hand, Fitzgerald’s kicking game was hugely positive, while he passed well for the majority of the game. There was one questionable effort out in front of Rob Kearney (the fullback might still have held), but the distribution was strong from Fitzgerald overall.

Watching on from the stands, Joe Schmidt will have been pleased to see a player he rates highly performing so well. Robbie Henshaw and Fitzgerald? Henshaw and Stuart McCloskey? Henshaw and a fit-again Jared Payne? The options for Ireland look good.

Pro12 priority

Cullen’s first season as head coach is in danger of ending in tatters if Leinster cannot now turn their 100% focus onto ensuring success in the Guinness Pro12.

Currently fourth in the table, Leinster have a huge game against Munster on 27 December in Thomond Park. It’s likely that the IRFU’s player management policy will deprive Cullen of some of his perceived frontliners, but that may not be a bad thing.

Several of the province’s Ireland internationals appear to be struggling for mental and physical energy over the course of 80 minutes, while youngsters like Garry Ringrose and James Tracy are positively bursting for an opportunity.

The use of Ringrose as 24th man today was a true shame, particularly given that he could have been brought off the bench in midfield instead of the underwhelming Zane Kirchner.

It’s not only about giving youngsters experience; men like Ringrose are outperforming the bigger names and better-paid squad players right now.

Sexton’s improvement

The sight of Sexton heading for the bench is nearly always a jarring one. He consistently looks deeply unhappy and, given his concussion problems in the recent past, there is always a worry in that regard.

Jonathan Sexton watches the match from the bench Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Ireland out-half was called ashore again this evening, keeping his head down, glaring at the ground as he exited. Leinster could have used him in the closing minutes, but without the ball there was little he could have done to change the outcome.

Overall this was an improved performance from Sexton, as his high tackle focus paid off with turnovers rather than the usual knocks to the head. His passing was as crisp as it has been for some time, the lovely inside effort to Rhys Ruddock for a big first-half break one of the highlights.

Sexton was 100% with his four efforts from the tee and looked like he was actually enjoying himself in the opening half. Chasing a Pro12 is not the reason Sexton came home, but the hope is that his gradual rise in form continues into 2016.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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